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France anxious to tap into Africa’s growth

05 December 2013, 13:11

Johannesburg - France’s president Francois Hollande will host 40 African leaders in Paris for an ambitious two-day summit, as he looks to secure his nation's influence in the face of the growing clout of China and other developing economies.

Once master of expanses of northern, central and western Africa, France has played a crucial role in its post-colonial history, intervening militarily more than 20 times since the early 1960s.

French boots are about to hit the ground again, with plans for more than 1 000 soldiers to be deployed to help restore order in the lawless Central African Republic (CAR).

It will be France's second military operation in Africa this year, after Hollande sent more than 4 000 troops to oust Islamist rebels in control of northern Mali in January.

But officials insist his message at the summit will be that Africa needs to begin looking after itself.

"Africa needs to start taking responsibility for its own security," a French diplomatic source said ahead of the summit.

The leaders will on Friday hold talks on cross-continent security issues like terrorism, piracy and trafficking, including efforts to set up an African Union-run reaction force to deal with unrest.

The UN chief Ban Ki-moon and EU leaders are also to take part and a separate mini-summit on the CAR crisis will be held on Saturday.

Hollande has vowed to break with France's old way of looking at Africa - a system dubbed "Francafrique" that saw Paris use its economic influence and military muscle to prop up dictators or back up rebellions in its own interests.

Officials say the CAR intervention highlights Hollande's different approach, as France is seeking the UN Security Council backing for the mission and operating in support of an African mission already on the ground.

Still, experts say France is hardly retreating from its longstanding military role in Africa.

Crisis situations

Of the about 7 500 French soldiers deployed overseas as of 1 December, more than 5 300 were in the continent, at a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defence ministry figures.

In a report in May, London-based Chatham House quoted official sources saying France's permanent military presence in Africa costs it upwards of $540m per year and that the budget was expected to rise.

"France wields a level of influence in sub-Saharan Africa that it cannot command anywhere else in the world," the report said.

"In crisis situations, it is still seen as a key source of diplomatic, military or even financial pressure."

A key government report on defence policy in April even highlighted a particular role for Africa in France's long-term defence and security strategy.

Even some African officials admit the continent will continue to need military help from abroad.

"Africans can make their own efforts, particularly in terms of equipment," an African diplomatic source said, "but we have enormous needs in terms of logistics and training."

On Saturday, the leaders at the summit will turn to economic questions, with France pushing a new partnership plan with Africa drafted by Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.

With China now Africa's largest trading partner and countries like India and Brazil scaling up their presence, France is anxious to tap into the continent's rapidly growing economies.

It already has a strong presence in Africa - which accounts for three percent of French exports - but its share of the African market has been falling for decades.

Hollande said ahead of the summit that the goal was to double trade with Africa, which he said would create 200 000 jobs if done within five years.

More than 500 African and French business leaders were to take part in trade talks on the sidelines of the summit, which was also to discuss endangered species and climate change.



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